Jean-Michel Lemieux is the senior vice-president of engineering at Shopify.
Despite the romanticized image of the lone entrepreneur having a eureka moment in the garage, the reality is that innovation doesn't happen in isolation.
Great ideas come alive when groups of passionate people come together to inspire, support and collaborate. From Stockholm and Tel Aviv to Seoul and Berlin, and of course, Silicon Valley – we have seen, time and time again, the benefits that such rich ecosystems bring entrepreneurs.
Yet in Canada, we fail to build stable tech ecosystems because we do not have a foundation that nurtures a company from inception into a disruptive entity. If we want to be a competitor in innovation, Canadians need to get serious about developing an infrastructure to support it.
The federal government recently called on industry leaders to propose tech "superclusters" – hubs of investment and research that promise to create jobs and spur economic growth. While this is an encouraging step, it's every Canadian's responsibility to do their part and contribute to the ecosystems in which "superclusters" can be sustained.
Harvard professor Michael Porter first coined the term "cluster," which describes a geographic concentration of interconnected companies, suppliers, services, providers and associated institutions. A tech supercluster is a group of clusters with the addition of prominent tech companies. This is an important differentiator because successful tech companies are the champions of successful clusters. And through this success, the cluster's lifecycle creates new tech champions.
This is why we must focus on solidifying the foundation of tech in Canada by addressing three persistent structural gaps: talent, capital and collaborative development.
Fast-track work visas for highly skilled workers and supporting establishments such as the Vector Institute, which works in the area of artifical intelligence, demonstrate Canada's desire to attract talent. Carleton University and Shopify's bachelor of computer science program is a great example of a work-integrated education initiative to foster homegrown talent. The program is Canada's first full-stack education program: Students learn core concepts in the classroom and apply them in real life in the workplace at Shopify. One of the goals of the program is to provide a deeper understanding of concepts and address the gap between higher education and entry into the workplace. These are important milestones and we need to do more.
We need to heavily invest in marketing Canadian startups to future talent. One of Canada's biggest gaps is our lack of visibility at home and abroad – something our neighbours to the south have been highly successful in developing. While we have great companies that are growing, such as Clio, Jobber, and Ecobee, highly skilled talent and graduating students don't know about them. If we want to compete, we all need to become effective marketers to show talent that there are reasons to stay in Canada and there are great Canadian companies that will invest in their life's work.
Secondly, if we want to be a global leader in innovation, we need to support venture capital (VC) opportunities.
Globally, more than 70 per cent of the top 100 tech companies leveraged VC investments at some point to expand internationally. Yet in 2015, Canada garnered a meagre 1 per cent of global VC investments and these opportunities are decreasing. According to KPMG, worldwide VC activity is declining by 24 per cent year over year. We need to incentivize global capital to invest in Canada before it's too late.
Locally, Canadian companies can play an effective role by sponsoring VC funds and accelerators to cultivate early-stage companies with funding and mentorship. Ontario legislation is already promoting equity crowdfunding and new platforms, but we need to explore the other avenues such as tax-incentive models to accelerate angel and growth investing.
Lastly, we need to ensure collaboration exists at all stages of company development – especially when it comes to scaling. We have started to recognize this gap, which is evident in the creation of organizations such as Creative Destruction Labs, which focuses on the transition phase from preseed to seed-stage funding, but there is more to be done. For example, until last year, Canadian leaders in engineering attended international engineering conferences only because there were none in Canada.
How can Canada expect to retain its engineers if the leadership in ideas takes place outside Canada?
This is why three companies came together earlier this month – Shopify, Pivotal Labs and Grossman Dorland Recruiting – to host their second conference bringing together global engineering leaders in Canada. Canadian Tech @ Scale tackled some of the top issues facing the engineering field such as scaling, AI and networking in Canada. We need to see more conferences and mentorships in every field.
Canada is moving in the right direction and I am encouraged by the steps we've taken, but it's up to every Canadian to build the foundation before we can build the legacy.